William “Iowa” Paine always wanted to go to college. Despite taking a multi-year detour, he’s finally off to Weston Academy of the Arts to study what he loves: English literature. Iowa even manages to find a tenuous place with a small group of friends as exciting as they are ebullient. There’s a thespian named LA, a musician called Cynic, and an enigmatic young man named Charlie who seems to perfectly bridge the gap between performing arts and musical ones. LA and Cynic warm up to Iowa quickly, but Charlie seems only to tolerate him. However, the more time he spends with this group, the more he wants to know them…and especially Charlie. Over the next several months and courtesy of Cynic’s incredibly deep pockets, the four friends forge deeper connections. Eventually, Iowa realizes he is in love with Charlie.
But there is a history between Charlie and Cynic. One that goes deeper than friendship and may not have reverted to just-friends until relatively recently. When Charlie and Iowa start a relationship, it has a chilling effect on the group dynamic and most notably Cynic. The good-time vibes are strained, even though all four of them continue studying, vacationing, and partying together. When a life altering event happens just before graduation, the once tight-knit group all but breaks apart. As each member reevaluates where they are in life and what they want from it, Iowa suddenly discovers that love can’t always hold something or someone together.
Made of Folded Paper is a contemporary novel from author Kai Wolden. It’s set mostly on a college campus in Michigan with a few scenes in Iowa, Boston, LA, and New York and told in first person perspective from Iowa’s point of view. Though the characters are all in college, their varied life experiences give the tone of the story a wonderful gravitas. Iowa and Cynic are the same age and about five years older than the average college junior. Both Iowa and Cynic seemed to have pretty detailed personal histories break through on the page. Conversely, I thought Charlie’s and LA’s backstories were only lightly fleshed out, but in a way that made it easy to conjecture that most of Charlie’s religious family probably rejected him when he came out as transgender and that LA’s total dedication to his art is likely a reflection of the Asian parent trope. Even Iowa feels so full and complete, despite having just a handful of concrete details about the character and how he uses his imagination to combat ennui. Wolden does a superb job conveying each unique character and writes them in a way that absolutely made me feel like each one was greater than the sum of his parts.
In terms of flow, I loved that this book covers two years of university. I just really enjoyed that the story, like life, wasn’t neatly contained within a single school year. Iowa, Charlie, LA, and Cynic split their time between the creative pursuits required to earn their degrees, group time studying or hanging out on campus, and extravagant vacations. And not all four friends are always together all the time. For me, this added a deeper dimension to the sub-groupings. It made sense to me that Iowa would consider LA his best friend because I got to see them interacting just the two of them. Having Iowa as our narrator provided consistency between so many changing scenarios and also showcased Iowa’s personal growth as his feelings towards Charlie shift.
One thing I really loved about the whole story was the dynamic between Iowa and Charlie. Charlie basically gives Iowa go-to-hell vibes, merely tolerating Iowa because LA and Cynic do. And when that sweet summer child Iowa mistakes Charlie’s top surgery scars for an indication that Charlie has serious health issues, it was just fun to see this misunderstanding unfold. Charlie is convinced Iowa is a transphobe and Iowa is desperate to know Charlie won’t keel over. Iowa seems innocently ignorant of everything except what he’s gleaned from rainbow capitalism. He actually makes another transgender friend who, stunned, explains one of Iowa’s own inner circle of friends is also transgender. And just as the misunderstanding slowly comes to light, it gradually gets resolved with Iowa merely daydreaming about a Grand Gesture to prove he’s an ally.
But the absolute best part of the book for me was the aftermath of the life altering event that affects them. I cannot get over how much I sympathize with Iowa and the others as they first try to cope with the fall out and then they drift apart. There was always the question of whether or not they would have remained such good friends in the absence of tragedy, or if that growing apart was organic. Reading about Iowa pursuing the next stage and just trying to cope felt so honest. And for readers who cannot abide sad endings, there is an eleventh hour save that leaves the door open for a happily ever after.